The hype surrounding the Patriots-Colts showdown makes the NFL seem like a two-team league with 30 spectators. Not true. There are 29 spectators. Don't count the Pittsburgh Steelers out.
Everyone seems to think a New England-Indy AFC Championship Game is a forgone conclusion. The Pats and Colts are undefeated and winning by huge margins. The Steelers are 5-2, with some narrow victories, and have a rookie head coach, so they're not getting a lot of attention as a threat to the two powerhouses.
Here are five reasons that may be a mistake:
- They have the No. 1 defense in the NFL: They kept defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and are working in new head coach Mike Tomlin's influence. They could be a better at the end of the season than they are now.
- They have the No. 1 running game in the NFL: Willie Parker is a more confident player than he was during the 2005 Super Bowl run and this is basically the same offensive line that led them to a championship.
- Ben Roethlisberger is back: Big Ben threw 18 TDs and 23 interceptions in 2006 when he was reeling from a motorcycle accident and appendectomy. He has 15 touchdowns and six picks in seven games this season, meaning he's on pace for 35 TDs and 13 picks.
Roethlisberger is rarely in the discussion of the elite QBs. A New York city radio talk show said it wouldn't trade his career for Eli Manning's. That's ridiculous. If you took last year's aberration off his resume, Roethlisberger would be on a Hall of Fame track. His uncanny ability to escape the rush with his feet and keep drives alive is often overlooked. And he could burn any team that loads up to stop the running game.
- They have basically the same team that won Super Bowl XL: Six starters from the Super Bowl team are gone -- Antwaan Randle El, Jeff Hartings. Joey Porter, Kimo Von Oelhoffen and Chris Hope. Name one of those players the Steelers significantly miss. While Hartings' retirement was a blow, Sean Mahan has been a pleasant surprise at center. And Porter's volume may be missed, but all you have to do is look at his performance in Miami to gauge how much Pittsburgh misses him on the field.
- Their two losses this season were excusable: They fell to a Cardinals team that was basically playing its Super Bowl because their head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, wanted to beat his former team so badly. And they fell to the Broncos on Sunday night. Sunday night road losses don't indicate much since they're like Monday night games and the home teams tend to play out of their minds.
Other than a trip to New England in Week 14, the Steelers have a soft schedule in the second half, including games against the Jets, Rams and Dolphins. If they end up 12-4, they could get a home playoff game against the Colts. New England isn't going to lose anywhere near four games, but Indianapolis has a very tough schedule and always drops a few games toward the end of the season.
Maybe I'm fooling myself because I want more teams added to the drama. But Patriots and Colts in the AFC Championship Game seems too predictable for an NFL that never follows the script.